Gloria Steinem’s op-ed in the New York Times couldn’t be timelier. It appears the day after Senator Clinton’s emotionally honest moment in New Hampshire, when she changed in one moment from a frosty, Tracey Flick-like know-it-all bee-yatch to being an embarassingly menstrous wreck, at least in the eyes of the press corps. Steinem argues persuasively that a woman with Barack Obama’s resume would never have been taken seriously as a presidential candidate, let alone a front runner. On the day after Senator Clinton was taunted by heckers carrying a sign and screaming, “Iron My Shirt,” Steinem asks, “so why is the sex barrier not taken as seriously as the racial one?”
However, I have to question Steinem’s version of American history, in which “black men were given the vote a half-century before women of any race were allowed to mark a ballot, and generally have ascended to positions of power, from the military to the boardroom, before any women (with the possible exception of obedient family members in the latter).” This is factually correct, but shorn of all important context. While the 15th Amendment was ratified in 1870, and the 19th Amendment was ratified in 1920, white women were generally (if grudgingly) permitted to vote without incident from 1920 on, whereas there was virtually no Federal law enforcement of voting rights for African American men and women from 1870 until at least the 1960s (and arguably again in the 2000s), not to mention the violent extralegal intimidation and assaults enacted almost exclusively on black bodies that were seen as having disobeyed the customs of the American racial caste system. This context is important to Steinem’s overall point: it may be that because white women’s enfranchisement and greater opportunities for education and economic advancement weren’t met with the kind of organized political violence that met African Americans, this allows more Americans (and sadly, most liberals) to deny the significance of sexism even while they recognize and sometimes even work to atone for the corrosive effects of racism.
One last item: let’s pick up Steinem’s line about the “possible exception of obedient family members” that a few connected (white) women benefited from. This is another point on which I (think I) disagree with Steinem, who makes a decent case for Clinton’s experience. While she has a long career in public service, Senator Clinton has only been in elective office herself since 2000. Her claims to experience have a whiff of the Chatelaine about them–I’m loathe to compare her to George W. Bush, but the differences between them are more in degree than in kind. Both of them are coasting on someone else’s name and experience (although I think it’s clear that Hillary Clinton was much more of a political partner with Bill than George W. ever was to his father.) I’m with Katha Pollitt and Digby on this issue, and in general on the screwed-up discourse on gender and power in the United States. Senator Clinton wasn’t my candidate, but I would really hate to see her lose like this, amid screeches of “Iron My Shirt.”